Posts Tagged ‘education’

The “B” Word

Thursday, March 6, 2014
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I look at you sitting there politely — hands clasped, feet crossed at the ankle — and I wonder when and where it all went wrong.  With your Kate Middleton-inspired hair and makeup, monogrammed sweater, pearls, Ralph Lauren oxford, starched khakis, penny loafers, and blush-polished nails, I see your image on every Pinterest board dedicated to pretty, preppy girls. You are the poster child for a sought-after adolescence: academic achievements in a private school, elite social position, athletic involvement, Ivy League hopeful.

But this footage is also proof that you’re a kid who has come to expect it.  Since you aren’t getting your way, you’ve turned into an adult who has come to demand it.

I’m responding to news reports, of course, because I don’t know what’s gone on behind closed doors.  Yet I seriously doubt that you grew up in a house of horrors.  If your mother called you fat, and if your father invited you to drink beer with him, then that’s their misery. However, your account of psychological abuse is challenged by a rant directed toward your mother, which was laced with the filthiest words in the English vocabulary.

Have you been rebellious and disrespectful all along?

You’re the daughter of a former police chief. If a father of his professional background can’t control your tantrums, then who can? You see, that’s what bothers me.  All of the pieces that promise a better shot in this world were in place. You appear to have (or have had) it all.  Then, when you reportedly stepped out of line by drinking, cutting school, and dating boys who weren’t ideal, stricter rules and harsher consequences were enforced by Mom and Dad (obviously too little, too late). Now, you’re suing them.

I’m sitting here trying to figure out a way to make sure my daughters don’t turn out like you.  Why? Because you, my darling, are a brat.

While I don’t know you personally, I do know of you publicly.  You are not special.  You are common. There are many teenagers in this world who could be your identical twin. They just haven’t dragged their parents into court and made a media spectacle out of private family matters to get even more attention.

Yes, thanks to your drama, I’m in a tight spot. I now see the dangers of giving my children too much, too soon, and too often. I pray I haven’t already established a similar pattern of expectation and delivery. I suddenly question everything I’ve ever done for them, and what their father and I intend to do in the near future. I keep repeating to myself: Everything in moderation…including parenting.  But what does that mean, exactly?

Growing up as an only child, I was comfortable. When I turned 16, my mother bought a car for me to travel back and forth to a remote high school.  My dad put gas in it (I could drive all week on $5).  They bought the majority of my clothes and paid for a lot of my fun.  Most of this support was in exchange for never giving them any trouble. But when it came to my college education, my mother was frank: “I’ll do the best I can, but you’re going to have to help.” She sold a farm in Greenbrier County, and it guaranteed 40% of my undergraduate tuition to a local university. I was awarded a partial scholarship, and I worked on campus to pay the balance due.  When it came to graduate school, though, I was on my own. I got a loan.  I earned a master’s degree. I found a better job.  I paid off the loan.

My husband is a true do-it-yourselfer.  He wanted to attend college, but the money wasn’t there.  As an honor student, he could have earned scholarships, I suppose. Instead, he joined the Army, served his time, accepted GI Bill funding, graduated from engineering school, launched a career, and made a life for himself.  By himself.

Now, he’s saving every nickel to help send our children to college.  Unless our daughters land full scholarships or piece together enough financial aid to pay the way, they’ll owe something when it’s over.  And this fact keeps us up at night. Before hearing about your little situation, I felt terribly guilty that we wouldn’t be able to give our children free rides. Now, I’m beginning to think that it would be a mistake to underwrite the entire thing. In reality, we can only save and do so much. There are limits, and you don’t seem to comprehend them.  To be so bright, you don’t understand the meaning of the word “no”.

If you were my daughter, I would be thoroughly disgusted with myself. Mothers, in particular, have such high hopes for their children.  We want to make life easier for them. We want to give our kids material possessions and exciting experiences that we never had. We want them to be happier. Today, I see what all of those wants can do to a child, even if they are well intended.

What I need is the courage to be a bitch now – not later.  I need to remember that I am a mother, not a friend.  I am a parent, not a bank.  This hurts. It’s an entirely different type of labor pain.  But I refuse to be afraid that my daughters won’t like me someday.  I have to stress the importance of personal responsibility and accountability. What they can rely on and expect in this lifetime is unconditional love from us. But the rest is up to them.

As for you? Your family and everyone else’s family will wait for a judge to decide if children are entitled to prepaid college funds. Recent testimony revealed that after a series of infractions, your parents allegedly cut your access to a life of privilege that you took for granted.  Indeed, you should go away to school.  But biomedicine is the very last thing you need to learn.

 

 

 

The Wrong Question

Wednesday, January 29, 2014
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When I was six, I got my first glimpse at how misguided and even harmful some adults can be.

I already thought my teacher was mean (a belief I still hold today), but I never realized  that she didn’t believe in encouraging her students to develop their own dreams and aspirations.

I figured that out the day Mrs. Gladwill handed each student in her first grade class a large piece of paper with space to draw a picture at the top with lines underneath. She instructed us to draw a picture and write a couple of sentences in answer to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

I soon realized that Mrs. Gladwill cared as much about our answers as she would about a random stranger’s response to the question “how are you?” In other words, she didn’t really care at all.

But even as a first grader, I was a bit of an overachiever. I wanted to impress Mrs. Gladwill with my plans to be a trapeze artist. No matter that I was completely uncoordinated and afraid of taking risks, I was going for glamour.

My first grade brain never equated a career, or even a job, with skills, aptitudes and passions that could make the world a better place. All I understood was a job defined you for life. Why else would adults always be asking “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I wanted to be glamorous and admired. The problem was, I didn’t know how to spell trapeze. When I asked Mrs. Gladwill, her only advice was to look it up in the “book of jobs” she had provided us.

Needless to say, trapeze artist wasn’t listed.

So I had to ask Mrs. Gladwill again.

Instead of just spelling trapeze or suggesting I think about other possibilities, she told me I should be something “normal” like  a nurse.

I had no desire to be nurse, but I recognized the authority she had. So, I reluctantly looked up nurse in the career book and wrote about how I wanted to be one. Thus ended my aspirations of being a trapeze artist.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of this incident when my son, a sophomore in high school, brought home his ACT Score report. One side provided his test scores and the recommendation he go to a four-year university. The back side was a complicated graph intended to help him make a career choice. I have a Master’s degree, and I didn’t understand how the “world of work” map could be helpful. And it, like Mrs. Gladwill and so many other adults, asked the wrong question: “what do you want to be?”pablo picasso

Every person already “is.” The question adults should be asking children, adolescents, young adults and even each other is “what are your gifts and how do you plan to share them with others?” That, according to  a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso, is the meaning of life.

If Mrs. Gladwill had asked me about my gifts in first grade, I probably would have told her “my imagination and telling stories.”  Neither lended themselves to being a trapeze artist nor a nurse. They didn’t really point to a career as a social worker either, but I would discover new gifts as I matured.

To  me, helping young people discover their gifts is entirely more useful than the “world of work” map my son was handed. And watching them unwrap and use those gifts is actually a gift for all of us.

Procrastination is Making Me Wait

Wednesday, January 22, 2014
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There’s a saying that couples who have been together for a long period of time start to look like each other.procrastination

I don’t think my husband and I have taken on similar physical characteristics, but I do fear we are becoming more alike.

When we got married, people constantly reminded us about how different we are. I’m high strung and feel guilty if I’m not doing something productive. My husband isn’t and doesn’t.

I worry about deadlines and returning phone calls. My husband doesn’t believe in unnecessary stress and knows how to prioritize what is truly important. Needless to say, I’ve sometimes accused him procrastinating.

But lately, I’ve noticed that I’ve started waiting until the last minute to do things. I never did anything well in advance, but I never put things off either. That’s seems to be changing.

Recently, I had a report for work due on Friday, and at 3:00 on that Friday afternoon, I finally started the paperwork. At 3:05 I got an email telling me that the deadline had been extended until Tuesday. Instead of finishing the report, I started working on something else. I didn’t actually complete the report until, you got it, Tuesday afternoon.

Such  behavior defies my innate philosophy about the need to plan for unforeseen circumstances. I’ve tried to teach this to my children, but they have adopted their father’s philosophy of, whenever possible, putting off until tomorrow what you don’t want to do today.

Last month my children should have realized the wisdom of my advice when the unforeseen did happen. I had been hounding my son to finish his science fair project, but he was dragging his feet. With the science fair scheduled for Monday, on Saturday morning I told Shepherd that we would spend the afternoon organizing the data so he could put together charts and his display. With that said, I took the dog for a walk, slipped on ice, shattered my wrist and spent two nights in the hospital.

On Sunday, I had only been out of surgery about an hour when I received a phone call asking if I was up to helping Shepherd with the data. With less than 24 hours before the project was due and literally nothing done, I told him to come by. With laptop in tow, he did, and we put together the charts. For the rest of the day and well into the evening, I got updates about the project. Around midnight, I even received a text with a photo of the display board.

When I got home, very little was said about the project, but I was pretty sure my daughter had assisted with some of the artwork. I was also sure she would take note of the pitfalls of waiting until the last minute. That’s why I was surprised when Kendall didn’t take my advice to work on her social studies fair project during Christmas break. Instead she, like her brother, chose to wait until the weekend before the project was due.

I grumbled, but since the project was her responsibility, there wasn’t much I could do. Besides, Kendall is at that age when she takes great pleasure in testing her mother.

She made that quite clear as she finally cleaned off the coffee table in the family room, dragged out the blank cardboard display board and dramatically opened it on the table. Then, Kendall looked at me and gestured at the table. “It’s procrastination station,” she said. “It worked for Shepherd and it will work for me.”

I wasn’t at all pleased that the kids had actually named the spot where they work on last-minute projects, but my husband seemed to be. He actually grinned when I told him.

I’ll never know for sure, but I’m pretty sure he thinks the children actually inherited that trait from him.

There may be something to that theory, and investigating the existence of a procrastination gene might make a good science fair project.

I’d suggest that to my kids so they could get a jump start on next year, but something tells me that’s just not going to happen.

The Son I Don’t Know

Wednesday, October 2, 2013
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Yesterday, my husband insisted I watch a video of a baby dancing to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” I had just gotten home from work and Image (51)was already on my way out the door again, but Giles was persistent.

When I finally looked, I knew why.

The baby dancing in diapers reminded both of us of our son, a teenager who now towers over both of us.

When he was born, everyone told me the years would fly by, but I really didn’t believe them. Sleepless nights, diapers and endless worries about his development consumed my time and energy.

Now  suddenly, he is  a sophomore in high school with a life about which I know very little.

I know the  boy who walks through my house in his boxer shorts and tousled hair. I know the boy who is obsessed with computers, video games and music. I know the boy who comes home from football games and plays the trumpet after he thinks everyone else is asleep. I even know the boy who gives me sarcastic answers in one breath and says “I love you too, Mom” in the next breath.

But what I don’t know is the teenager who goes to school every day and faces the realities of adolescence and peer pressure. I simply get glimpses of him every now and then.

The first glimpse came at the end of his eighth grade year when he won a dance contest during a school assembly. My son? Seriously? He was never the most coordinated kid nor particularly interested in anything that’s popular. I later found out he’d won the contest by performing the “Dead Bernie,” which is actually a shout out to a movie from the year I graduated from college.

I got another glimpse when I was at Girl Scout camp with my daughter this summer when one of the other mothers mentioned him.

“My son loves Shepherd,” she said. “He’s like Norm on Cheers. When he enters the classroom, everyone yells his name.”

I asked Shep about this, and he stoically said, “I’m a character, Mom.”

And then, at a recent football game, an English teacher was chatting with me. “I love Shepherd,” she said. “He is just so enthusiastic. He doesn’t care what people think about him.”

I got the not caring about what people think about him part, but I wasn’t sure about the enthusiasm. Around the house, he generally shows the enthusiasm of a slug.

Generally,

But that same night after the game, he was particularly talkative.

“Mom,” he said. “One of the kids from the other band told me I was an awesome trumpet player.”

That’s about as talkative as Shep gets. At least, that’s about as talkative as he gets with me. But he highlighted his enthusiasm by wailing on his trumpet until the wee hours of the morning.

His love of music is why I am being the dutiful mother and taking on responsibilities with the school music boosters. That’s also why, on Monday night, I found myself playing games on my phone during a boosters meeting while I listened to other parents discuss basket bingo and costumes for show choir.

Then the band director said something that caught my attention. The group had been talking about the band’s performance at an away football game when the other school had given them unexpected respect and a standing ovation. In response, the band had signed a thank you letter. Only, according to the band director, he couldn’t send it yet because someone had decided to give himself an inappropriate title upon signing.

My heart sank. The band director never gave any indication about who the culprit was, but I knew. When I got home, I didn’t even ask.  But I did tell my husband, who pursued the issue with Shepherd.

“I asked Shep about signing the letter,” Giles said. “He admitted he embellished his signature a bit by adding that he was the best trumpet player.”

My heart sank a bit that my son had once again gone a bit too far. But then, my heart also lifted.

Maybe I’ve been kidding myself. Maybe I do know my son better than I thought.

Maybe, just maybe, I am having a problem letting go of the toddler and embracing the man he will soon be.

But in the meantime, I’m drafting a speech about modesty and how to sign a letter.

I have absolutely no doubt about what Shep’s one word response will be.

And when he says, “whatever,” I’ll know he still needs a mom to guide him.

Bad Form

Wednesday, August 21, 2013
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The newer and brighter an object, the more likely we are to notice any blemish.form

That’s probably why I was so annoyed at having to complete two full-page school enrollment forms for each of my children.

On the same day that my son was among approximately 900 students to attend West Virginia’s newest and largest high school, I had to hand write the same information I’ve been providing the school system for years.

As officials touted the ”state-of-the-art facility with high-tech advancements for classroom learning,” I had to print my name and phone number four times on four copies of the same form.

I really have no reason to complain. My son has a unique opportunity. He is attending a school that this year has no senior class but has 14 science labs. The desks are designed for technology and the students use iPads.

Spring Mills High SchoolI’m thrilled for my son and for his sister who will attend the same school in a couple of years.

I just don’t understand how a school system that has invested 45 million dollars into a building can’t invest in a computerized system that updates my children’s information and emergency contacts.

Having worked in the nonprofit world for years, I understand funding streams and designated dollars. What I don’t understand is not using technology and instead opting for inefficiency.

As my friend Sara, with whom I was talking while filling out the yellow monsters, said,  ”Those are the same forms my parents filled out when I was in school.”

In reality, I shouldn’t be hung up on low-tech systems or high-tech schools. Instead I, like our school system, should simply be concerned with whether or not my children are learning and have the skills they need to excel once they leave public schools.

Complaints about anything else would be bad form.

Pun intended.

For more about West Virginia’s newest high school:

http://www.wvpubcast.org/newsarticle.aspx?id=31266

http://wvmetronews.com/2013/08/07/new-high-school-opens-in-berkeley-county/

http://articles.herald-mail.com/2013-08-07/news/41209798_1_spring-mills-high-school-berkeley-county-school-board-marc-arvon

 

Trying to Break the Dress Code

Wednesday, August 7, 2013
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I spent the first 45 years of my life hating uniforms. I was never attracted to men who wore them, and I never wanted to wear one myself.

I hated conformity to such an extent that I didn’t even like wearing a name tag or a shirt with my employer’s name or logo. At times, I had to wear them, but I didn’t enjoy doing so.

Then last year I attended my daughter’s middle-school orientation, and I started re-thinking the issue of uniforms.

Even though I’d already spent three years as the mother of a middle-school student, that student was my son. And during his middle-school years, he generally wore whatever I bought him without complaint. (That all changed when he started high school, but during middle school he was fairly oblivious to style.)

But my daughter is different. She’s been fashion conscious since she was old enough to pull clothes off store racks.

Fortunately, Kendall is also fairly level-headed, so I’d never been that concerned about her clothing choices. But her entry into middle school marked my sudden interest in school uniforms.

As we sat in the gym bleachers at her school orientation, I assumed the heavily made up girl in short shorts and a tight t-shirt was the older sister of an incoming student.

I was wrong. She was the classmate of Kendall, who was only turning 11 the next week.

On the way home, I couldn’t resist asking my daughter what she thought of the makeup and clothes.

I was relieved she wasn’t impressed, and even now as she prepares to enter seventh grade, she still prefers modest clothes and a fresh face.  I’m hoping that continues, but there are never guarantees.

For the moment, I have other concerns. The selection of modest and appropriate clothes is getting smaller with every inch she grows. Finding age-appropriate clothes in her size isn’t easy. Many of the dresses are suggestive, the shorts could be bikini bottoms and words on the rear end of pants are just not acceptable.

Then there are the school dress code rules about fingertip-length shorts and see-through shirts that we have to follow. Last year, Kendall was wearing a modest ivory shirt with a tank top underneath and was still told she wasn’t allowed to wear a see-through shirt by a rather militant teacher.

She was embarrassed and devastated and hasn’t worn the shirt since.

Which is why I’ve begun to re-think the whole issue of uniforms. It would certainly make the morning rush a bit easier, because no matter what clothes Kendall lays out the night before, by morning she has changed her mind.

It would also make shopping easier.

I was almost sold on the idea of school uniforms until Kendall performed in the musical Annie this summer.hooverville

She was a member of the chorus and filled multiple roles including a nun, a homeless person in Hooverville and a maid in the Warbucks mansion.

The nun’s costume is self-explanatory and she could have been taken for one of the orphans in her homeless costume.

But when she put on her maid’s uniform, she looked like an adult.maid

And, since she doesn’t turn 12 until the end of August, I had a difficult time seeing her in it.

I know school uniforms are quite different, but that modest maid’s uniform has me once again disliking all uniforms.

For now, I’ll rely on t-shirts, jeans, cute skirts, modest dresses and a great deal of  faith that she won’t grow up any faster than necessary.

An Uneducated Comment

Wednesday, June 5, 2013
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On Tuesday during a Washington Post event, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant suggested that mothers in the workplace started the decline in the American education system.

In my well-educated opinion, I can’t imagine a more stupid comment.

“I’m going to get in trouble. You want me to tell the truth? You know I’m thinking both parents started working,” Bryant said in response to a question about why the country’s education system has gotten so mediocre. “The mother is in the work place.”

Apparently, he tried to clarify his remarks saying that “both parents are so pressured” in modern family situations.

Both parents? Modern family situation? I’m not sure what world Bryant lives in, but many American children don’t have the luxury of even having two parents in the home.

His comments come on the heels of a study released last week by the Pew Research Center that found mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners of 40% of American households with children under age 18. The share was just 11% in 1960.

Although I’m a working mom,I have to admit I’ve never been the primary breadwinner in our “modern family.” I also know my husband wouldn’t complain if I were.

In reality, I’ve never held a high paying job, but I’ve also never worked just for the money. I’ve worked in positions that, I hope, have made the world a better place – similar to all those working moms in our schools. I wonder what would happen to our education system if all of the moms who serve as teachers, principals, counselors, social workers, librarians, psychologists, cooks and aides quit to stay home with their children.

I know the students wouldn’t be better off, just as my children wouldn’t be if I stayed home with them.

For many years, our family needed my income to help meet our basic needs and to keep my children warm, safe and dry. I’m sure the single, working mothers would say the same.

My children also needed me to work for my sanity. I’m just not cut out to be a stay-at-home mom.  I quickly learned that trying to arrange play dates and doing arts and crafts drained me. I get my energy from working in the community, and I bring that energy home to better meet the needs of my family.

Most of my work involved helping communities look for solutions rather than blame and point fingers for social, education and other problems. For example, extensive research on brain development indicates that what happens between the ages of zero and three affects our ability to learn,  If our education system shifted some of it resources and focus to the very young, children might actually be better prepared for academic learning and our education system might gain some ground.

I’d point that out to Governor Bryant, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t notice. He’s too busy pointing his finger at me, a working mom.

Actually, Failure IS an Option

Wednesday, May 1, 2013
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Two weeks ago, I sat in a parent-teacher conference feeling as though I had just swallowed a rock.

Ms. James and I were going through the motions of an annual individualized education plan review. This was the fourth year in a row the two of us had gone through the process together. For three years, we talked about my son, and this year we talked about my daughter. Ms. James showed me Kendall’s latest test scores, aptitude tests and curriculum adjustments, then I signed on the dotted line. As in previous years, I noted the drive to the middle school lasted longer than the actual meeting.

Then Ms. James fed me the rock.

“I think Kendall is letting her perfectionist tendencies hold her back.”

She didn’t need to elaborate. I knew exactly what she meant.

Kendall has inherited my fear of failure and avoidance of real challenges.

I’m not sure when or how I first began rejecting anything that wasn’t a guaranteed success, but I know I didn’t inherit the trait from my mother. When I was in elementary school, she ran for the board of education and lost. I will never forget standing in our kitchen when she told me the final results. I burst into tears, but she didn’t seem bothered at all.

“I can run again,” she said in her usual matter-of-fact tone. (She successfully did the next year.)

But her words were empty to me. All I could think about was that the voters liked someone else more than they liked my mother.

Unfortunately, I grew up (and even kind of old) fearing the same thing would happen to me if I took risks.

I had to excel at everything I did. If I couldn’t excel, I didn’t even try.

Looking back, I missed so many opportunities and denied potential relationships for fear of defeat, failure and rejection. The demands I put on myself to be an overachiever often resulted in being an underachiever.

Fortunately, at some point, I figured out that the best moments have absolutely nothing to do with making it to the top and everything to do with the adventures along the way, the people we meet and the lessons we learn. Some of our riches memories are rooted in learning from our mistakes, and not even trying is a greater failure than doing our best and falling short.

I just don’t know if that’s something I can teach Kendall or if it something that she will have to learn the hard way like I did.

In the meantime, that rock Ms. James fed me is still sitting in pit of my stomach. As a mom, such things take time to digest.

The Genius of Mr. Hoff

Wednesday, April 24, 2013
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As a fifth grader, I thought my teacher, Mr. Hoff, was a very odd man.

He was balding and middle-aged, but he walked with the gait of a gawky teenager who hadn’t quite yet adjusted to his new body. Instead of drinking coffee, he carried a thermos full of milk that he kept with him at all times. He wore a funny-looking, fuzzy, fur hat, and he would often break into song during the middle of class.

Mr. Hoff was the best teacher I ever had.

With an unorthodox approach to education and a genuine understanding of what kids really need, Mr. Hoff didn’t teach to the test and often didn’t even teach from a book. Instead, he taught from his heart and for his students.

We learned the parts of speech, how to solve complicated math problems and how fossils were formed. More importantly, we learned that education could actually be fun and exciting.

Thirty-five years later, I still remember.

On the first day of school after summer vacation, my classmates and I quickly discovered that Mr. Hoff wasn’t like any other teacher we’d ever known. He didn’t take a lot of time going over the classroom rules or carefully assigning us seats. Instead, he drank milk and talked about his passion for history. When he stopped talking, he told us to put away everything but a pencil and paper. He then instructed us to write everything we knew about history. Everything.

Since I’d spent much of my summer reading biographies from the public library, I was sure I’d ace the first test of fifth grade. Long after the other students had turned in their papers, I was still writing, and I handed in my essay with great pride. I anticipated an excellent grade and praise from Mr. Hoff. Instead, I got nothing. The papers were never graded and eventually forgotten.

As the school year wore on, Mr. Hoff continued to surprise and delight our class.

Instead of spending his free time with the other teachers, he chose to spend time with us and engage in conversation about our lives.

If we were restless, he rarely told us to quiet down or pay attention. Instead, he would take us outside for an unscheduled recess or to the gym to play dodgeball.

Like most of my classmates, Mr. Hoff preferred to be outside rather than in his classroom. He taught us geography by taking us into the schoolyard and pointing out the  peaks of the Cascade Mountains. He taught us geology by taking us spelunking. We learned how engines worked by peering inside the hood of Mr. Hoff’s car and by visiting vocational classes at the local high school next door.

When weather or other forces kept us inside, Mr. Hoff kept us interested in grammar by playing games. He kept us interested in history by telling stories. He told lots and lots of stories.

But Mr. Hoff didn’t just entertain us, he expected us to learn. Unlike other teachers who scheduled tests, Mr. Hoff gave pop quizzes about anything and everything. We never knew when we’d have one or what the topic would be, so we paid attention.

The school year sped by, and the last week of school arrived too soon. During one of those final days of fifth grade, Mr. Hoff once again told us to put everything away but a  pencil and paper and to write down everything we knew about history. Everything.

This time, I wasn’t the only one who wrote, and wrote and wrote. The classroom was silent except for the scratching of pencils, the turning of paper and the occasional whir of the pencil sharpener. When the bell rang, Mr. Hoff collected our papers.

The next day, he handed them back along with the essays we’d each written on the first day of school.

“I encourage you,” he said, “to read both and tell me what you learned this year.”

The classroom erupted in noise. Everyone was talking and laughing about how little we’d known only nine months earlier.  When Mr. Hoff asked for comments, everyone put a hand up.

Everyone had learned something.

Before the final bell rang, Mr. Hoff told us, “Education and life have a lot in common. They aren’t about how much you already know but about how much you continue to learn.”

Now, as a 46 year-old mother of two, I still think Mr. Hoff  was a very odd man, but I know that he was an absolutely brilliant teacher.

The Dark Side of Homework

Wednesday, March 20, 2013
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I spent last weekend cursing my son’s Spanish teacher.

I cursed her as I stirred pot after pot of paper mache. I cursed her as I picked paper mache off clothes, my table and my cat. And most of all, I cursed her because making a piñata is an absolutely stupid homework assignment.

I’m all for homework when it is relevant and expands my children’s knowledge and ability to think. I even support homework because it teaches self-discipline.

But requiring students to do an art project for a Spanish class is absolutely ridiculous, especially when the assignment instructions specify “the piñata must be dry, neat, and a complex shape with a hook attached. The grade is equivalent to a test.”

I took Spanish in high school, so I know that learning a new language is also about learning about new cultures. But if piñatas are really about culture, then every birthday party in America is the equivalent of a trip to the Smithsonian.

When I complained to my friend Stefani, she was equally confused. “I took eight years of Spanish, and we never made piñatas,” she said. “For that matter, we never even ate nachos. Maybe instead of making piñatas, the students should have been given recipes in Spanish and required to cook the food.”

She had a point. They would be gaining language skills and learning about culture.

But my son didn’t even get a paper mache recipe in Spanish. Instead, he was instructed to watch a video about making a piñata on YouTube. The video was in English.

I admit that I’ve never been good at arts and crafts, so I may be a bit jaded. But my real dislike of the piñata project isn’t about my inability to paint or draw a straight line.

I don’t like the piñata project because, in addition to having no effect on my son’s ability to speak Spanish, it tips the already unbalanced education scales in favor of middle-class students.

I spent at least $50 buying materials for the piñata. I also gave my son a pile of newspapers (for the paper mache) that would have otherwise gone into the recycling bin.  My husband and I subscribe to the newspaper because we can afford the luxury. We buy supplies for our children’s school projects because we can afford to purchase them. And we spend time helping our children with school projects because we aren’t balancing multiple jobs to pay the bills.

Author Jean Kwok vividly illustrates the plight of the working poor in her novel Girl in Translation when she talks about not having the money to buy materials for school projects and not having access to newspapers or cable television to keep up on current affairs for her social studies classes.

There are lot of parents in West Virginia who can relate, and many children who struggle as a result. My son is fortunate not to be one of them.

His piñata is due next week and, because he cares and because his parents are able to support him, it will be submitted on time and meet all the requirements. The project even taught him something, but his new knowledge has nothing to do with Spanish.

It has everything to do with tolerating and pacifying a mother who rants about pointless homework.